MS. REBECCA SHEIR
We move now from taking chances in politics to taking chances in science. Neuralstem is a biotech company based in Rockville, Md. and it just got FDA approval to implant stem cells into people with spinal cord injuries. As the company embarks on what may be a long scientific journey, Emily Friedman (sic) brings us this story on how the cells work.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
When we talk about the birds and the bees and human conception, most people don't talk about stem cells. But stem cells are there, almost from the beginning.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
I found this video online. It's by Euro Stem Cell, a group of European labs trying to raise awareness about their research.
MS. EMILY BERMAN
If you isolate the cells before they start splitting off into bone cells and blood cells and skin cells, those are called embryonic stem cells. They're around just for the first few weeks of human development. After week seven or so they've multiplied and begin to form the many systems that make up the human body.
MR. RICHARD GARR
There is a spinal cord and a brain that starts to emerge. And those cells, at that point now, can't and won't turn into bone cells or blood cells or skin cells.
Richard Garr is the cofounder and CEO of Neuralstem. At this stage he says the cells in that brain area of embryo have all the information they need to become neurons. These are called neural stem cells and they're the building blocks of our central nervous system. They're also the basis of his company's research. Garr explains, the nervous system works by sending electrical signals up and down the spinal cord. And with degenerative diseases like Multiple Sclerosis, ALS and Parkinsons, there's a gap or something that's blocking signals from getting through.
The body has ways of healing itself and replacing its tissue. If you cut yourself, your skin repairs itself. When you bleed you get more blood, your body makes it. Your bones regenerate bone.
The central nervous system doesn't do that.
Basically, that's why brain damage, for instance, is so hard to repair.
The same goes for spinal cord injury, but when neural stem researchers tried injecting lab rats with these neural stem cells, they found a way around this hard reality.
We're actually putting in cells that are going to turn into neurons that are actually going to bridge the gap.
I'm walking down a long corridor with Dr. Thomas Hazel. He's the head of research at Neuralstem. One of the most important traits of neural stem cells, Hazel says, is that they can easily replicate. The lab received a donated tissue from a legally aborted fetus about 10 years ago and they've been using those cells ever since.
DR. THOMAS HAZEL
The cells are grown in stacks of these flasks and the cells actually physically attach to the base of each flask.
After the cells multiply and those cells multiply, they're put in vials and frozen using liquid nitrogen.
And so each of these boxes has vials of cells in them.
There are hundreds of vials lined up the freezer. I asked if I can touch them.
Sure. It's very, very cold.
Whoa, that is very, very cold. So how many cells are in this little vial?
So that's probably five or ten million cells there.
Back in Richard Garr's office, he brings up a video on his computer. It's from Neuralstem's first clinical trial on ALS patients. The patient's back--and this is going to be gruesome--the patient's back is cut completely open, exposing the spinal cord.
This is incredibly invasive.
ALS is the slow deterioration of neuron cells. In the video, a surgeon is injecting the neural stem cells directly into the spinal cord, where, if all goes according to plan, they would turn into healthy, brand new replacement neurons. Phase one of FDA trials is to prove the procedure is safe. And then, in Phase two, researchers will study whether or not it works. The ALS trial is waiting for approval for Phase two, but patients, on their own, are reporting some improvement.
We're putting the real therapy in the real patients. And we're testing everything to see if they're getting better.
The trial the FDA recently approved will be exactly the same surgery, but in patients who've experienced spinal cord injury in the past one to two years in the thoracic spine, which is from your chest down.
And the question you always ask yourself is, well, would I let my mother have this surgery? Would I let my son have this surgery. And if you can't say yes, then you can't do it.
There are no moral victories, Garr says. You can either help the patients or you can't. And after more than a decade of research, he says, there are getting very close to a breakthrough. I'm Emily Berman.
Neuralstem hasn't announced the hospitals taking part in the study, but if you'd like to learn more about it, you can find links on our website, metroconnection.org.
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